I think I might have found my weakness in fugue writing, and it is one that isn't easily helped by all the counterpoint studies that I have been doing. That is the part of the fugue that is super essential, namely, the subject. If the fugue is like the human body, the subject is like the heart, essential to the piece. Without a subject, you don't have a fugue. Even if you go contrapuntal, all you would have without a subject is free counterpoint, with the only organization being via cadences or maybe a canon.
If free counterpoint is like a liquid, always changing, than a subject entry is like a crystal, neat and predictable. A fugue then is like the perfect balance between the liquidity of free counterpoint and the predictability of subject entries. My counterpoint skills are good. I can take a melody and write another melody that is contrapuntally compatible. But, when I try to write a fugue, again and again, I fail. Closest I have gotten is an almost finished exposition in 4 voices(3 voices complete, 4th voice unfinished). With my first fugue attempt, I went ahead and wrote an episode. By the time I got to the next subject entry, I realized my mistake, I failed to make a good fugue.
Studies into Fugues
A few years of counterpoint studies pass and I am able to write free counterpoint and canons with no problems. But the beast of the fugue keeps getting me. And don't get me started on double fugues, those are much trickier to pull off and I only know of about 10 or so double fugues(Some by Bach, the Kyrie from Mozart's Requiem, Grosse Fuge by Beethoven, and the fugal variation of the Ode to Joy theme in Beethoven's Ninth). Most of the ones I know of have overlapping expositions(for example the Kyrie from Mozart's Requiem has a 1 measure delay between its first subject, the slow "Kyrie Eleison" subject, and it's second subject, the sixteenth note "Christe Eleison" subject, both of which are in a single exposition(or you could think of it as 2 overlapping expositions)). The few that I know that have 2 completely separate expositions are all by Bach.
But, back to my main point, I think my weakness in writing fugues has to do with the subject. It obviously has to either be melodic in nature(like most fugue subjects) and/or to have an obvious rhythm and interval component(like the subject of Fugue in D major WTC Book II, with it's rhythmic component that reminds me a lot of Beethoven's Fifth. Speaking of which, I have made some progress with the fugal variation of it. I now have a countersubject to go with the Beethoven's Fifth subject. I decided to go with the whole first 8 bars of the first theme as my subject. Here is that countersubject combined with the Beethoven subject:
Anyway, I think there is something more to a good fugue subject than melody or rhythm. There has to be, otherwise you could have the C major scale as a viable fugue subject. Clearly, that isn't the case that a bare scale is a viable fugue subject, there has to be some wave in the melodic contour, even if it goes up or down or stays the same overall. But then again, all of my fugue subjects have had this wave in the melodic contour and I have always failed to complete the fugue.
Countersubject works, Subject fails
I have this whole systematic approach to my countersubject that involves building up from a harmonic backbone and fixing any errors that result. But with my subject, I have no such approach, I just improvise a melody that I think will work and then write the fugue exposition in the hope that the subject works. With my Beethoven fugue, that is a clear "Yes, this totally works as a subject." But with my improvised melodies it isn't clear until I start writing the exposition whether the supposed subject is going to work or not.
Going this improvisation route for my fugue subjects has always lead to me failing to complete the fugue and with one exception, I have failed to complete the exposition. Here is the one and only improvised subject for which I have been able to complete the exposition(all the others have lead to contrapuntal errors like crazy):
That is my first ever fugue subject, which happens to share a few things in common with the Beethoven subject I showed earlier. Here they are:
- They both start on the dominant note of the scale
- They are both in C minor
- They both have a clear harmony they are outlining. In the case of the Beethoven subject, it is an alternation between I and V7. This is the harmony that my first ever fugue subject outlines(at least if you take the Bb's and raise them to B naturals):
Again, mostly an alternation between tonic and dominant with the one exception of the diminished seventh. Major difference has to do with melodic grace(or the lack thereof).
So, now what? If the subject is my weakness in writing fugues because of melodic improvisation, should I take a chord progression and then write a melody that emphasizes those chords and use it as my fugue subject? Should I try writing a fugue using one of my preexisting countersubjects as the subject and see if that improves anything? Because when I search "Tips on writing a fugue subject", all I get are either research papers and books on Bach's fugues or guidance on writing an entire fugue. Nothing shows up that goes into what makes a good or bad fugue subject.